CLASS Blog 2: Understanding Sikhism

Year 11 CLASS has been all about providing knowledge, understanding and discussion for students of the stories behind the headlines. Mrs Malcolm and the CLASS Team explore more.


How has the world’s understanding of Islam, for better or worse, changed since September 11th 2001? What is the story of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s prominence in its politics from 1994? Is violence always terrorism or can it be freedom fighting? How could a Sikh, Veerender Jubbal, be mistaken for one of the Paris attackers in November 2015 when firstly, he is a Sikh (and wears a turban; ‘kesh’ is one of the Five Ks in Sikhism for Sikhs of the Khalsa – the baptised Sikh community), and secondly, he is Canadian and has never visited Europe?

Sikhism is one of the world’s six main religions, and it is also the youngest. Founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of India, it is a monotheistic religion and different tenets of the religion are specifically designed to help Sikhs cope with life and everyday problems.

Sikhism is not without its own everyday problems. One of the Five Ks is the kirpan; a ceremonial dagger or small sword worn by Sikhs of the Khalsa. Clearly carrying what could first and foremost be seen as a knife creates all sorts of problems: can Khalsa members, who are teenagers, take them to school? What about the workplace? A football match? A flight? The kirpan symbolises that Sikhs are not pacifist; they can stand up for what is just and good and use violence to achieve what is just and good if it is in the name of self-defence.

Interestingly, ‘kirpan’ comes from two Punjabi words which translate as ‘mercy’ and ‘bless’. Knowing these two words means that the kirpan might not seem such a threat after all. The kirpan, therefore, is an article of faith which can be misinterpreted, in a similar way to how Islamic women were treated on French beaches in August 2016: being asked to remove burkinis because they appear as a threat to others. Why do articles of faith appear as a threat? Knowledge about such articles of faith brings to light within us a greater understanding of culture, life and society.

Integral to the Sikh faith are the two beliefs of ‘nishkam’ and ‘seva’. Nishkam is the notion that a good action should be done without the expectation of getting anything in return. Seva is the idea that every Sikh should perform selfless service to others; at least 10% of their time should be spent ‘doing seva’. It gets me thinking: are there any actions that I do that would fit the description of nishkam and seva? Opening a door for someone else? But then surely I expect them to smile at me, and say, “Thank you!” In fact, I think people can be positively rude if they don’t smile and thank me! Although I suppose I could settle for one or the other? How about marking all of those exercise books at home, chipping into my evening free-time when I really want to be doing something else? Ah yes, I get paid for that because I am a teacher – that’s definitely getting something in return! Making a birthday cake for someone in my family? But then I love them – and actually I DO expect them to remember my birthday and provide me with a cake and candles! That’s only fair – and certainly not nishkam or seva!

It got us all thinking in CLASS lessons of selfless acts – is there such a thing?

Hunger shows no discrimination

It led us to consider the significant things that we may be able to do to save lives. Perhaps that is a sacrifice that can fit nishkam and seva? How on earth can we save lives? It sounds a bit like I shouldn’t be writing this right now, but I should be teetering on the edge of the A30 waiting to spring into action if someone breaks down or crashes? Or retraining as a paramedic? Or finding a cure for cancer, Ebola, cystic fibrosis…? Or donating all my savings to good causes? Would all of those things be significant enough?

One way in which Sikhs serve others is genius in its practicality. Feeding people. It’s called the langar – a community kitchen or canteen, and there is one at every gurdwara. Sikhs take turns at working in the langar and food and drinks are served; usually vegetarian curries, bread (chapattis), sweet desserts, and tea and water for drinks. There is no discrimination; every human gets hungry and needs to eat regardless of their status in society, nationality and faith. In fact, Sikhs in London are queuing up to volunteer to bring the langar to London’s streets; known as the SWAT team (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) they serve hot soup, drinks and chocolate bars to over 500 of London’s homeless, like John Davidson, 55, who says, “We come here because we get food… A hot meal. It’s a luxury for me.” Giving money to support the SWAT team seems like nishkam to me. More importantly, if there is no money to give; time and effort are just as valuable to donate. Nishkam and seva all in one.

A similar endeavour can be found at St Austell Foodbank where 2,521 emergency food supplies have been given to people in our own community in the past year, and who report that 1 in 5 of the UK population live below the poverty line. Hunger is not something forgotten along with rationing in the 1950s. A typical emergency food parcel from the St Austell Foodbank includes breakfast cereal, soup, pasta, rice, pasta sauce, tinned meat and vegetables, baked beans, UHT milk, tea and coffee, tinned desserts and biscuits. If you ever need to receive such help, you have to have a voucher and this can be obtained from the agencies that work with the Foodbank, such as Citizen’s Advice, children’s centres, churches and health visitors. The voucher can be exchanged at the Foodbank centre, at units 4-5 Brunel Business Park, St Austell, and you can also chat to them about dietary requirements, such as if you have diabetes, an intolerance or are vegetarian. If you would like to give such help, food can be donated at Tesco’s in Daniel’s Lane, and at the Co-op in Moorland Road. Furthermore, volunteers are the life blood of foodbanks; you could be a Warehouse Volunteer (to help weigh, sort and store donated food before it’s made into parcels for people to collect) or you could be a Voucher Coordinator, which involves issuing and distributing vouchers and using IT skills to input data into a central database. It’s not quite the langar – serving already-made food to a community in need – and we may already feel content because ‘this is something I already do’ be it regularly or casually. The thing to remember is, of course, that hunger also shows no discrimination. It will never be permanently solved. But the Foodbank seems to be one of the best outlets to show nishkam and seva in our own community.

And Veerender Jubbal? Well, his Khalsa turban (or kesh) was mistaken for Islamic attire, and his iPad in his selfie-pose was photoshopped as a Qur’an, and a Spanish journalist with no knowledge of culture, life and society published his picture in the newspaper La Razon as a Paris terrorist suspect… Jubbal tweeted the ultimate alibi, “Am a Sikh dude in a turban. Never been to Paris.”

Mrs Malcolm, 21/05/17

What are your thoughts on selfless acts? Come and see us in the CLASS Department! Merits may be awarded for excellence!:)